Donald Trump’s advisers are said to be arguing over whether to list the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) as a terrorist organization.
The Brotherhood is a broad social and political movement that advocates for democratization and Islamic law. It has long renounced violence, providing a moderate alternative to violent Islamist movements and Arab autocrats — and is seen by both of those groups as an enemy.
It has generally been the view of the United States that it is best to bring the Brotherhood into the political process rather than isolate and alienate it.
But for years, far-right anti-Muslim activists in the United States — including top White House adviser Steve Bannon — have promoted conspiracy theories claiming that the Brotherhood is controlling mainstream American Muslim organizations ranging from the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) to Muslim Student Association chapters as a part of a scheme for an Islamist takeover of America. In 2007, Bannon authored a film script that imagined an America where Muslims had taken over the country through cultural subversion. In the outline for that film, he dubbed the Muslim Brotherhood “the foundation of modern terrorism.”
Extremists on both sides have long sought to exploit divisions between East and West. ISIS, for instance, condemns what it calls the “grayzone” of coexistence that allows Muslims to live and thrive in Western societies. This Muslim extremist strategy has as symbiotic relationship with the far-right in the West, which also seek to make their societies unwelcome to Muslims.
Listing the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization and spreading wild interpretations about its reach into American-Muslim life could, in the view of Muslim-American activists, lead to an unprecedented crackdown against Muslim-American nonprofits and civic organizations, as well as other steps towards criminalizing simply being Muslim in America.
Ryan Ahari, a policy analyst at the Muslim Public Affairs Council, worries that it would give fodder to the government to suppress Muslim American civic life. “What would happen is if you designate the MB as a terrorist organization, you’re going to have to figure out which organizations at home at do you think are operating domestically in conjunction with the Muslim Brotherhood,” he warned. “You’re going to order the FBI to raid their offices. You’re going to delegitimize us. You’re going to remove our credibility.”
Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesperson for CAIR, emphasized to The Intercept that there has never been any actual legal link between mainstream Muslim-American organizations and the Brotherhood. To Hooper, the campaign to list the MB is about intimidating American-Muslims.
“The only reason for this call to ban the Muslim Brotherhood is to target American-Muslim civil rights and advocacy organizations,” Hooper said. “They don’t really give a rip about what’s happening overseas. It’s a two-step vehicle for targeting American-Muslims. First, you get this designation. Then you bring up the fact that for years Islamophobes have been falsely linking every mainstream American-Muslim leader and organization to the Muslim Brotherhood. Then you say, ‘There, Go get ’em!'”
One of the president’s top aides, terrorism adviser Sebastian Gorka, has a history of associating American-Muslims with the Brotherhood. When several Muslim-American organizations, including CAIR, sponsored a prayer at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., in 2014, Gorka sensationally penned an article titled “Muslim Brotherhood Overruns National Cathedral in DC.” In that piece, he lamented that the Episcopal Church, which runs the National Cathedral, failed to understand “the finer points of jihadist doctrine, one of which is that if a place of worship is used by Muslims for their prayers, that territory subsequently becomes part of Dar al Islam, sacred muslim land. Forever.”
There are signs that those in the Trump administration who want a hostile posture towards the MB are winning. On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis — one of the more moderate members of the administration — withdrew his nomination of former diplomat Anne W. Patterson as his deputy at the Pentagon. The Washington Post reports that officials in the White House objected to Patterson due to her previous role as the U.S. ambassador to Egypt during the brief time that the Brotherhood ruled the government there. Two Republican senators who have also been highly critical of the MB, Arkansas’s Tom Cotton and Texas’s Ted Cruz, also reportedly pressured the administration to oppose her.
If Trump declares the MB to be terrorists, it would be an affirmation of the extremist claims that Muslim political engagement with the United States is fruitless and the only way to deal with the U.S. government is through violence.
Just ask Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, one of the most influential Salafist scholars in the Muslim world. The Salafi movement advocates for an ultra-right wing form of Islam, and Maqdisi served as a one-time personal spiritual mentor for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the infamous al Qaeda terrorist who waged sectarian warfare in Iraq.
Eventually, Maqdisi became a critic of some terrorist organizations like ISIS, but he continues to preach an intolerant form of Islam that seeks conflict with liberalism.
In a February 24 missive written on the messaging app Telegram, Maqdisi invoked Trump’s possible move as evidence that political engagement with western governments is pointless, as Muslims will just end up being called terrorists anyway.
“All Jihadis should not dream of no classification!” he wrote. Using poetic language common in Arabic writing, he wrote of Trump: “Oh people you are now at a time of a guardian of all tyrants.” He also encouraged his followers to pursue their extremism, pointing to the treatment of the Muslim Brotherhood as an example of how they will be suppressed even if they embrace moderation and political engagement with the West. “That stupid [person] wants to label the Muslim Brotherhood on the terrorist list!! So don’t wait for him to un-label you even if [you lost everything]! As long as you smell like the scent of jihad [the idea of jihad is not gone]!”
Cole Bunzel, a PhD student at Princeton who studies Islamist movements, posted it to Twitter:
Bunzel explained how he read the letter: “Basically he just says that the jihadis (his term) ought to hope that the Brotherhood is designated, noting that Trump wishes to do this,” Bunzel told The Intercept in an email. “His purpose in saying this though is not to exonerate the MB (which he hates) but to criticize those elements of the Syrian armed opposition he sees as drifting in the direction of the MB by trying to show the West good will — e.g., attending talks in Astana.”
The peace talks held in Astana, Kazakhstan, have brought together major players in the Syrian civil war, including opposition groups and the Syrian, Russian and Turkish governments. But some Syrian opposition groups are boycotting the talks, believing them to be pointless.
“So he says at the end that if Trump designates the MB don’t think you’ll escape the same fate,” Bunzel concluded.